Dear Congressman:

The highest elected officer in the land cannot be allowed to willfully violate the law, manipulate the judicial system and rape the constitution.

Dear Congressman:

I am appalled that the American people are allowing the media to appeal to their baser natures to such an extent that they are delighting in accusing, trying, and sentencing our nation’s highest leader.

These two opposing perspectives on a president have a familiar ring, do they not? In fact, those are opening sentences from two of the hundreds of letters received by U.S. Rep. M. Caldwell Butler of Virginia during the final weeks of October 1973.

Beginning that month and continuing through August 1974, Rep. Butler’s staff processed a steady stream of correspondence from constituents who debated the pros and cons of the biggest question the congressman faced in his political career— whether or not to impeach President Richard Nixon.

During the more than 30 years that I worked in public affairs at five different colleges and universities, I dealt with many controversial issues — from fraternity hazing to Confederate flags. None of these issues was as consequential as impeachment, but perspective is difficult when you’re buried in angry calls and letters.

In the early days of my career, those calls and letters were literally telephone calls and letters in envelopes with stamps. In time, they morphed into emails and text messages, then Facebook rants and Tweetstorms. And here we are.

Rep. Butler was never the subject of either a nasty tweet or a supportive hashtag. In a corner of the Washington and Lee University Law Library, six bulging bankers’ boxes contain correspondence the Roanoke Republican received on impeachment. There are letters, of course, many handwritten; postcards; typewritten pages recording phone calls; and even the now unfamiliar yellow telegrams.

Here’s the thing: the media may have been different. But the messages were eerily similar.

For instance, those arguing for Nixon’s impeachment frequently accused him of wanting to be a dictator or maybe a king. “The makers of our Constitution did not intend to give the President powers of a King. We fought the revolution to get rid of a King,” wrote one man on Oct. 22, two days after “The Saturday Night Massacre” when Nixon ordered the firing of the special prosecutor only to have both the attorney general and deputy attorney general resign rather than carry out the order.

Nixon is “tearing asunder the political fabric of the nation.” A madman is president.” “Save our country and our constitution.” “If Nixon is not impeached, Americans must write off the checks and balances of the Constitution as a dead letter.”

Calls for impeachment grew louder that October, displaying the frustration of some who complained that Congress was dragging its feet. “One of the major impressions of people with whom I have talked seems to be that the Congress is impotent, primarily through a failure of will, to deal with the situation,” was one writer’s view.

And, perhaps inevitably, there were references to Hitler. A woman from Buchanan wrote two pages, by hand and in quite personal terms: “The memory of my own people’s flight from Germany before Hitler went completely dictatorally (sic) mad is too fresh a memory. I never thought I would live to see the day when I would live in terror of the next moves [of] the President of the United States of America but I do now.”

In the “anti-impeachment” folders, expressions of support for Nixon featured sentiments equally reminiscent of Tweets and Facebook posts from today.

Some saw conspiracy, “a plot to destroy the Republican party…” Pointing to the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew, one writer insisted: “If this conspiracy to topple the Vice President, then President Nixon, and put in an unelected Democrat, succeeds, the United States and its people are in grave jeopardy from within and without.”

Others used two words heard often during the Mueller investigation: “It seems that the Watergate inquiry has now developed into a witch hunt in which some Congressmen are out to impeach the president regardless of the facts.”

Many targeted the Democrats with “whataboutism.” One constituent asserted: “If the millions that have been spent investigating [Nixon’s] administration had been used to investigate the two Democratic administrations before him, these charges against Pres. Nixon would seem like nothing.”

And media were a popular target, even without claims of fake news. “I have stood by and looked on the way you all with that low down NEWS MEDIA destroy our President and our Country until I can stand it no longer,” represented a common thread.

The virtual absence of profanity from the correspondence is noteworthy. Rep. Butler was called “a damned Judas,” a disgrace, a turncoat. More than one postcard had the single word “Shame” on the back.

But the congressman’s detractors were remarkably restrained with their language, especially compared with today’s typical social media exchanges. I have firsthand experience with this shift in the character of these communications. In the early 1980s when officials at Washington and Lee were debating coeducation, the feedback was intense but mostly civil. When the university removed the Confederate flags from the Lee Chapel auditorium, the language used by opponents of the decision was not just rude but often vile.

In the end, of course, Rep. Butler doubtless appraised the views of his constituents but cast his historic vote based on his own moral sense of what was right. That’s the advice I would always give: Just do the right thing. Or, as a Roanoke constituent advised the congressman in a July 26 telegram: “Vote your conscience and come home. Pool temperature great.”

Load comments